Dec 28, 2018

Favorite Classic Film Books 2018

In the interest of diversifying my offerings on A Classic Movie Blog, I didn’t review as many books in 2018 as I have in previous years. However, much of what I did read inspired me and in many cases greatly expanded my film knowledge. These are the works that stuck with me. I have excerpted my reviews below, titles link to the full post:

The Female Gaze: Essential Movies Made by Women
Alicia Malone

While Backwards and In Heels focused on the full array of women working behind-the-scenes in film, The Female Gaze spotlights the films they have directed. In a fascinating move, Malone does this by recruiting more female voices. Of the fifty movies discussed in the book, she has written several extensive essays herself, which are complemented by shorter essays contributed by working and aspiring female film critics. When it comes to elevating the voices of women, Malone is clearly serious about covering her bases....The Female Gaze is a fun read and an essential work in a world where the film industry is starting to head down the right track where female filmmakers are concerned, but still has a long way to go.

Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story
Mollie Gregory

University Press of Kentucky, 2015 (paperback 2018)

It took decades of fighting for women to find their place in the boy’s club of stunt work. In addition to sexual harassment, replacement by men for female roles, and closed hiring practices, women who did find work were held to higher standards. If a man made a mistake, he was forgiven. If a woman faltered, she was deemed unqualified for the job....

Gregory covers these struggles in detail, but she also consistently focuses on the joy of the profession. These women fought and continue to fight for better conditions and more access to jobs because they are passionate about performing stunts. In several stunt performer profiles, Gregory shares the many ways these women enjoy the thrill of this physical, risky, and rewarding work.

Hooked on Hollywood: Discoveries from a Lifetime of Film Fandom
Leonard Maltin

Good Knight Books, 2018

Before the movie guidebooks, television review gig, and thriving podcast, film critic Leonard Maltin was a teenage cinema fanatic living in New York City. There he had access to archives, rare film screenings, and some of the best performers and creators in the business. He made the most of these connections, writing thoughtful reviews of what he saw, putting in diligent research, and coming to interviews with a wealth of knowledge about and respect for his subjects…. 

I enjoyed the earnest tone and thorough research of Maltin’s early writings, but it was the interviews that moved me the most. In his respectful, even reverential treatment of these people who for the most part had been forgotten by the public, or at the very least undervalued, he reminded me a lot of the gentlemanly way Robert Osborne would celebrate industry greats. As much as I have seen Maltin as a promoter and lover of all aspects of film history, I hadn’t seen this side of him before. It wasn’t surprising, but it was a pleasant revelation.

Magnificent Obsession: The Outrageous History of Film Buffs, Collectors, Scholars, and Fanatics
Anthony Slide

University Press of Mississippi, 2018

This is a community with which Slide is intimately familiar, which gives the book an authenticity that would be impossible to achieve as an objective observer. He goes into the history of movie fandom, collecting, and the connecting culture, even explaining the origin of the term “film buff.” There is also much attention given to the habitat of the film fanatic, from theaters and bookstores to trade shows and private screenings.

Most fascinating of all though, are the people from this world. Slide has known many of them personally and they are an unusual bunch. Though I already knew a lot about the social awkwardness, theft, and eccentric personalities to be found in this milieu, I found plenty to surprise me here. I had also had a taste of the bizarre behavior to be found in this scene via a series of difficult and oddly amusing phone calls with one of the men featured in this book in the process of arranging an interview with an actor several years ago. Despite all this, I didn’t expect the level of aggressively antisocial, sexually depraved, and mentally unstable behavior I found here.

Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece
Michael Benson

Simon & Schuster, 2018

So much of the story is related directly by people who made the film that you get a palpable feeling of what it was like to be there. For that reason, this is an especially lively and engrossing production history.

Having access to so much first source information has also enabled Benson to dig into the complexities of making the film, where second unit location shooting often held as much drama as Kubrick’s action at the studio. It is easy to see why movies go over budget and schedule when presented with how many tasks make up the creation of a scene, let alone an entire production. Understanding the importance of all of those elements is what made Kubrick an effective, and occasionally infuriating, filmmaker….

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give this book is that I went into it not a particular fan of 2001: Space Odyssey and came away eager to give it another chance. Rewatching the film afterwards, I found the experience profoundly different because I had a greater understanding of the passion and intelligence behind it.

My deepest respect and thanks to these authors for all that they do to inform and entertain film lovers!

Dec 24, 2018

Deanna Durbin Sings Silent Night

I never miss watching this scene from Lady on a Train (1945) on Christmas Eve. Deanna Durbin's version of Silent Night is so soothing and full of the wonder of the season.

Whatever you believe. Wherever you are tonight. I wish you peace and joy.

Dec 19, 2018

On Blu-ray: Brewster McCloud (1970) and Mame (1974)

It’s hard to believe that the rebellious Brewster McCloud (1970) and fiercely traditional Mame (1974) were released only few years apart from each other. I recently watched both films on new Blu-ray releases from Warner Archive and marveled that they even came from the same decade.

I don’t think anything could match the perfection of Auntie Mame (1958), the first screen version of the story adapted from Patrick Dennis’ popular novel, but I’ve often wondered if Mame (1974) could have been at least a minor classic if the Broadway musical’s Tony-winning star Angela Lansbury had been cast in the lead. It would have at least been a lot more fun, as evidenced by Bea Arthur, who did get to reprise her Tony-winning stage role, and who steals every scene she shares with the miscast disaster that is Lucille Ball.

It’s endearing that Ball was determined to bring wholesome family films back to movie theaters, but unfortunate that she decided to be star instead of producer. To have observed Lansbury performing Mame on Broadway and take notes instead of admitting she owned the role takes a remarkable ego and lack of self-awareness and that is Ball’s greatest liability.

Ball is too old to play Mame, the actress who plays her mother-in-law in the movie is three years her junior, but much worse is the fact that she can’t carry a tune. As a result, her songs had to be patched together a few notes at a time. It’s still rough going making it through the many tunes she croaks in this lengthy film.

Aside from Arthur, the rest of the cast is decent, if not as snappy as in the 1958 film. The exception is Robert Preston as Mame’s Southern gentleman husband. He seems to have spent the seventies and eighties stealing scenes and brightening bloated films with his presence. Preston always had a special charisma, but in his later years he took on a more relaxed persona, seeming to enjoy the absurdity around him.

Mame deserves every bit of scorn it has received over the years. In addition to Ball's misstep in the lead, it’s too long and it often gets boring. That said, the costumes are gorgeous, Arthur and Preston are worth a watch, and there’s a sort of messy energy to it that won me over to a degree. It’s just barely an enjoyable fail.

The Blu-ray print looked good, though the film itself can be a rough watch since the lens seems to be slathered with something to make Ball look youthful. Vintage featurette Lucy Mame is included on the disc.

It's remarkable that Robert Altman’s brutal, demanding, hilarious, and raunchy Brewster McCloud (1970) was made four years before Mame. It’s a film as simple a boy who wants to fly, and as complex as all existence. There’s no way you can absorb what it has to offer in one sitting, even Roger Ebert admitted to that.

Brewster McCloud was Shelley Duvall’s first film, and she emerges with the best of her gawky wonder fully-formed. She’s such a mesmerizing presence that listening to her speak can put you under a spell. Her character glides through life without seeming to grasp reality, looking at the worst of life as unusual little happenings. She speaks with the cadence of Little Edie in Grey Gardens and the faux wide-eyed naivety of Marilyn Monroe, discussing an attempted rape like it was a minor inconvenience.

As the titular psychopathic dreamer, Bud Cort is a perfect fit for Duvall. He enters the action virginal, with rosy cheeks and childlike dreams, but he is fanatically self-absorbed. Still, you want him to break free of the banality of modern life, even if it would be nice if he could be more thoughtful about it.

Altman’s knack for assembling a pleasingly bonkers supporting cast is especially strong with McCloud. He has gathered a group of characters with complementary energies: the smooth calm of Sally Kellerman and Michael Murphy balancing the untethered quirkiness of Jennifer Salt and Stacy Keach (this man clearly relishes playing ridiculous roles). In essence they all refuse to play by the rules or face the consequences of rebelling.

It’s a glorious, bitter portrait of chaos that rejects convention, regrets it, and ends up laughing at everything anyway.

Dec 13, 2018

Streaming Diary: Documentaries for Classic Film Fans on Netflix

Unless you subscribe to their DVD plan, Netflix doesn’t offer a lot of classic films. However, when it comes to documentaries of interest to those who love the golden age of movies, it’s a different story. I’ve found several interesting flicks on the service, some of them even produced by Netflix. My favorites:

Quincy (2018)

Rashida Jones offers a loving, but honest portrait of her father in this intimate documentary about legendary composer, producer, musician and band leader Quincy Jones. With a beautifully arranged mix of archival and current footage, she explores his brilliance and flaws in equal measure, admirably giving proper attention to the women who put their lives on hold so that Jones could shine. Film fans will enjoy the brief, but interesting segment about the composer's film scores.

Faces Places (2017)

Influential French New Wave filmmaker Agn├Ęs Varda and the street artist JR are a charming pair on their essentially light-hearted journey through the French countryside. They travel in a customized van fitted with a special printer which makes oversized prints of the photos they take of people they meet on their travels. They plaster these pictures in public places, giving ordinary citizens a taste of fame and even more importantly, the feeling that they are worthy of attention. As interesting as the people they meet is the relationship between the two artists, who are divided by generations and emotional maturity, but share a deep compassion for and curiosity about humanity.

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)

When I saw this emotionally rich film about the actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr for the first time on public television, I regretted not recording it, as I immediately wanted to watch it again. It explores both her Hollywood career and the passion for inventing that inspired her to create signal hopping technology, which would eventually be used to secure cell phone communication. It is a simultaneously thrilling and frustrating story, buoyed by Lamarr’s brilliance and wisdom, but ultimately tragic because she never fully got her due for what she accomplished during her lifetime.

Five Came Back (2017)

This three-part documentary is based on Mark Harris’ book of the same name about the films Hollywood directors John Huston, Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, and George Stevens made on the frontlines of World War II. Directors Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass, and Lawrence Kasdan talk about this diverse group of filmmakers, essentially the best of Hollywood at the time, and how they threw themselves into danger to document war. Several of the films the directors made are also available on the service, including: Nazi Concentration Camps (1945), Undercover: How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines (1943), The Battle of Midway (1942), San Pietro (1945), and Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia (1943).

Tab Hunter Confidential (2015)

I love the positive, loving tone of this tribute to actor, singer, and teen heartthrob Tab Hunter. The star has weathered a brutal industry with grace, an especially remarkable thing as he had the added burden of living as a homosexual when it could end a career. Hunter himself gets lots of screentime. He remains a mesmerizing presence.

Filmworker (2017)

Leon Vitali was once an actor with a thriving career which promised to ascend to great heights. Then he met Stanley Kubrick while working on Barry Lyndon (1975) and decided to give it all up to work for the director in any capacity he could. His enduring devotion, and the way he was in thrall to this demanding filmmaker, are the subject of this fascinating, if occasionally unsettling documentary. It can be hard to watch Vitali suffer for the art of another, putting stress on his relationships, health, and finances, because as a society, we are taught to aspire to great things for ourselves. However, the film taps into the passion that Vitali felt for his work, demonstrating how his efforts were instrumental to the vision Kubrick brought to the screen and how in the end, he thought it worth sacrificing his own spotlight.

Dec 11, 2018

Pre-Codes on DVD: Passion Flower (1930) and Hide-Out (1934)

When Warner Archive announced that it would no longer be releasing the Forbidden Hollywood box sets, I was concerned, despite the company’s claims that it would still offer a steady stream of pre-code releases. While I still miss the sense of discovery in wading through those sets, I have been satisfied with the films from the period that have been offered since, including an interesting pair of new-to-disc flicks. I’d never even heard of Passion Flower (1930) and Hide-Out (1934) before their recent DVD release, so I approached both cold, with varying results.

Passion Flower (1930) is a standard melodrama: all about the varying degrees of suffering its characters endure. It stars two Kays: Ms. Johnson as a wealthy girl who marries her chauffeur (Charles Bickford) and is disowned by her father, and Ms. Francis as her so-called friend who first offers financial help, but then decides she wants to help herself to her friend’s hubby. By then there are children in the mix, so her selfishness is especially cold-hearted.

This was one of the films where Kay Francis set the template for two key aspects of her persona: the dangerously sexy husband thief (see also A Notorious Affair [1930]) and the ever suffering glamour puss (Mandalay [1934]). Here she only imagines herself the victim though. Even among the pre-code stars, only Kay Francis could feel sorry for herself for stealing another woman’s husband.

Francis is essentially the reason to watch; Johnson and Bickford aren’t nearly as intriguing, at least partly because they don’t have much to work with. As the oldest son of the pair, pre-Rascals Dickie Moore is reliably adorable and keeps his parents in line with his tiny pout and seal eyes. Zasu Pitts is also a bright spot as a tender-hearted landlady. It isn’t a production of distinction, but everyone is playing reassuringly to type.

Hide-Out (1934) could have been a standard fish-out-of-water yarn, but its cast and the staging of the production give it life beyond its familiar plot. Robert Montgomery plays a womanizing New York gangster-lite party boy who gets himself in trouble with the law. He escapes to an isolated farmhouse, where he is quickly charmed by his hosts, the wholesome Miller family, and falls in love with their daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan).

Director W.S. Van Dyke keeps the action light and brisk, transitioning confidently from the busy nightclub scenes in the first part of the film to the homier farm scenes to follow. The juxtaposition of the two worlds is enjoyable, with lots of songs and dancing girls bringing life to the city milieu and young Mickey Rooney taking on the role of entertainer on the farm as the youngest of the Miller clan.

There’s a great cast at play here and they are all at the top of their game. Montgomery, O’Sullivan and Rooney are especially lively—as are Elizabeth Patterson as Mama Miller and Edward Arnold as a tough, but jovial police detective. They all seem to be enjoying themselves together, as if the feeling of a happy set is translating to the screen. The laughs are a little more genuine than in a similar production and the relationship between O’Sullivan and Montgomery feels especially real as it develops from affection to love.

As I wondered where this surplus of cast camaraderie came from, it occurred to me that Montgomery might have had something to do with it. I thought about the way he always brought a little extra fire out of Norma Shearer in the romantic comedies they did, and how even playing an utterly evil character as he did in Night Must Fall (1937), he remained completely charming and infused the rest of the cast with his electricity. It’s something worthy of more thought: The Montgomery Effect. I’ve always thought he was underrated; now I’m thinking his appeal was also influential for his costars.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Dec 7, 2018

Streaming Holiday Classics: Features and Shorts for Rent and Free, Other Recommendations

While I have many Christmas movies on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray, I wanted to expand the offerings at my fingertips this year. I compiled a list of flicks available to stream so that I would have choices for any mood at my fingertips. 

Many of these picks aren't explicitly holiday movies, but have especially inspiring Christmas scenes and fit the overall spirit of the season. I've come to like these kind of films the best, because they lightly touch on the season instead of overloading me with holiday sentiment.

As a gift for you all, I'm sharing what I found! Free options are bolded (some require a library card).Enjoy:

A Christmas Past (silent short film collection)
I'll definitely be checking out this Kino Lorber release which has several silent shorts that are new to me. Check out the playlist for titles.

A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus (1907)

I like having holiday shorts available to watch for the occasional down moment. This is a cute one.

Auntie Mame (1958)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU/Amazon
This is a new addition to my holiday rotation. One of those movies that gets me in the spirit, though very little of it is about Christmas.

Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
I love that this tender film about lonely people finding each other during the holidays is starting to get more attention. 

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU
Cary Grant is an angel. Of course.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU/Amazon
So much to love, but I especially adore that Sydney Greenstreet is a good guy here.

The Great Rupert/A Christmas Wish (1950)
My only complaint about this film: not enough squirrel.

Holiday Affair (1949)
Internet Archive/YouTube/Google Play/VUDU
Another charming film that has slowly expanded its audience over the years.

Holiday Affair (Lux Video Theater, 1955)
Internet Archive
I can't vouch for this television version as I haven't watched it yet, but I am curious.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Internet Archive
Always amuses me that a film with such dark themes is embraced as a cozy Christmas classic.

It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947)
So many films with holiday themes are about loneliness. This is one of the most tender.

Lady in the Lake (1947)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU/Amazon
I always need a little noir for the holiday season.

Little Women (1933)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU/Amazon
It's only a moment in the film, but the generosity of spirit in the Christmas scene always moves me.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU
Judy Garland singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. That's enough to make it a holiday movie for me.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU/Amazon
There's a lot to love in this film, but I always watch because Natalie Wood is so darn charming.

Santa Claus (1898)
If not the first Santa Claus movie, it's definitely one of the first.

Santa Claus (1925)
Another early take on Kris Kringle.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU/Amazon
Any time of year, but especially this time of year.

Susan Slept Here (1954)
Another new addition to the holiday rotation. Watched it when Debbie Reynolds passed last year and realized how well it suited the season.

The Thin Man (1934)
YouTube/Google Play/VUDU/Amazon
That Christmas morning scene where Powell is shooting balloons off the tree. We should all keep that sense of play in our lives.

The Yule Log (1966) 

There have been many variations on the television Yule log over the years, but this one is the first (pictured above). It made its debut on the New York channel WPIX in 1966 and was aired every year until 1989 and was then revived in 2001.

My Streaming Wish List/Other Recommended Titles:

Bell, Book and Candle (1958), Because the scene where they unwrap their presents for each other is such witchy fun.

Blast of Silence (1961), Great vintage New York City locations during the Christmas season. It's not a cheerful story, but might be cathartic for those who feel grumpy this time of year.

I’ll Be Seeing You (1944), A wonderful depiction of the yearning for love and connection, and how that intensifies during the holidays.

Lady on a Train (1945), The scene where Deanna Durbin sings Silent Night on the phone to her father is one of my favorite film holiday moments.

Remember the Night (1940), I love the humble joy of the country house Christmas here.

Dec 4, 2018

Podcast Round-up: 6 Picks for Classic Film Fans

I’ve got another great batch of podcasts for classic film fans this month, but before I share my choices, I want to say congratulations to Brian Sauer and Elric Kane, because their lovely podcast Pure Cinema is now the official podcast of the New Beverly Theater, which is reopening after being closed a year for remodeling. This is one of my favorite podcasts because these two are so knowledgeable, but they’re never stuffy about it, always putting the focus on sharing their joy of cinema with anyone. I have shared installments of their podcast here before, but really any episode is worth a listen. Just be ready to add lots of titles to your to-watch list.

Now on to my latest choices. Podcast titles link to the episode:

NPR: Fresh Air
Karina Longworth

November 13, 2018

While I’ve enjoyed many episodes of Karina Longworth’s popular podcast You Must Remember This, I haven’t included them in my round-ups, because I figure this lady needs no introduction to film fans. It’s been great to see the media coverage she has gotten for her new book Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes's Hollywood. I especially like this interview with Terry Gross, where she talks about the women Hughes seduced, promoted, and stalked in Hollywood and her efforts to humanize them when they are so often written off as notches on the mogul’s bedpost.

Art Matters
How Alfred Hitchcock Created Artful Suspense with Joel Gunz

October 29, 2018
Episode 21

With host Ferren Gippin, guest Joel Gunz of the Alfred Hitchcock Geek blog discusses Hitchcock’s love of art and how he incorporated it into his films. I enjoyed this wide-ranging conversation about an aspect of the director’s work that doesn’t usually get such in-depth examination.

Cinema Shame
Hammer Horror Shamedown, Dan Day, Jr.

October 29, 2018

Guest Dan Day, Jr. discusses six recommended Hammer horror films and the long history of the studio with host James Patrick. It’s a wide ranging conversation that covers about any aspect of Hammer you could imagine. I especially enjoyed learning about the early history of the studio.

Film Connection
Billy Wilder: Kiss Me Stupid

November 12, 2018

In the fourth installment of a multi-episode Billy Wilder arc, Steven Saunders discusses the unusual and problematic Kiss Me Stupid (1964) with film writer Jeremy Carr. As much as I enjoy listening to podcasts about my favorite films or finding new discoveries, I think my favorite episodes are about films that haven’t won me over like this one. This thorough discussion helped me to examine some of my own reservations about this unusual entry in Wilder’s filmography and helped me to understand a bit more why it is such an uneven work.

NitrateVille Radio
Episode 32
Pioneering Women Filmmakers, with Shelley Stamp,George Willeman of Library of Congress

Mike Gebert discusses Kino’s massive new 6-DVD collection Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers and the preservation of movies by women filmmakers with curator and professor Shelley Stamp and George Willeman of the Library Congress. While Stamp initially hoped to craft a set of Lois Weber films, she enthusiastically switched gears to curate a set that encompassed a wider array of female filmmakers from the silent era. Stamp has a lot to share about the early days of female filmmaking, what has until been lost to history, and how she helped bring these underseen films to a more extensive audience.

The Movies That Made Me
Robert Forster

October 22, 2018

This conversation with Robert Forster is epic, essential. If you listen to one episode in this post, make it this one. Forster discusses his career, going into great detail about working with director John Huston on his film debut, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967). He also does a dead-on impression of Huston. Watch out Bogdanovich, you’ve got some competition in the celebrity impersonation arena.